The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

The Greatness of Clayton Kershaw

Is it possible that a 25-year old starting pitcher, with barely a half-dozen seasons under his belt, is already one of the most taken-for-granted veterans in the Majors?

Clayton Kershaw

Clayton Kershaw (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m writing, of course, of Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw.

As a Mets fan, I’ve been in awe of our own great pitcher, Matt Harvey (The Dark Knight of Gotham.)  Every pitching performance of his is an event to be savored.  I can think of perhaps only two or three other pitchers in Mets history who’ve generated this kind of buzz and displayed such overwhelming dominance at this point in their careers.

Then I recall that Clayton Kershaw is just a year older than Matt Harvey, and has already been just as dominant, perhaps more so, for about six years now.

Kershaw made his MLB debut at age 20 on May 25, 2008 against the St. Louis Cardinals.  In six strong innings, he struck out seven, walked just one, and surrendered five hits and two earned runs.  Of his 102 pitches, 69 were strikes.  His ERA after that first start was 3.00.  He has not posted an ERA that high in any of his past five seasons (including this one.)  His lone mistake that day was a double to some guy named Pujols.

Through 1,142 career innings (a fair sample size), Kershaw’s career ERA+ of 146 ranks 5th best all-time among starting pitchers since 1900, behind only Pedro Martinez, Lefty Grove, Walter Johnson and Smoky Joe Wood.  Including this season, he is enjoying his 3rd straight year with an ERA+ of at least 150.  By way of comparison, Sandy Koufax reached that level of dominance in each of his final four seasons.

Speaking of Sandy Koufax, until this year, Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax ranked #1 and #2 in fewest hits surrendered per nine innings in their careers (6.555 and 6.791, respectively.)  This year, Kershaw has squeezed in between Ryan and Koufax, now claiming second place all-time at 6.767 per nine innings.  Granted, Koufax tossed about twice as many innings in his career as Kershaw has to date, but, then again, Kershaw has been a much more dominant pitcher in his first half-dozen seasons than Koufax was.  In fact, Koufax was about Kershaw’s current age before he finally began to turn the corner in what had been to that point a very mediocre career.

Kershaw, with a career record of 74-44, has already won one Cy Young award, was the runner-up last year, and has an excellent chance to win another this season.  He is on his way to winning his third consecutive ERA crown, and will probably lead the league in WHIP this year for a third straight season as well.  He has also given up an average of just 5.8 hits per 9 innings this year, one hit per nine below his already fantastic career average.

Astonishingly, in his 1,142 career innings pitched, Kershaw has surrendered just 859 hits.  Another way of looking at this is that Kershaw has tossed 283 hitless innings in his career, the equivalent of pitching an entire season, and then some, without giving up a hit.

And lest you think that perhaps Kershaw has a walk rate that might not be quite as impressive as his hit rate, Kershaw’s career mark of 3.0 walks per nine compares favorably (though very similarly) to Koufax’s career rate of 3.2 walks per nine (not to mention Nolan Ryan’s much higher rate of 4.7 walks per nine innings.)

Since his rookie year of 2008, Kershaw’s WAR has gone up virtually every season as well:  1.4, 4.7, 5.5, 6.5, 6.2, 7.1 (thus far in 2013.)  His 31.4 career WAR (generally a cumulative stat), works out to an average of around 5.5 per season.  I’ll leave it to you to estimate where he might finish among the all-time WAR leaders if he enjoys perhaps another decade of good health.

There’s a real chance that before he’s done, Clayton Kershaw will rate among the top five left-handed pitchers in baseball history.  It would be unfortunate if, outside of L.A.,  baseball fans failed to notice Kershaw’s greatness due to our sports media’s current obsession with scandal, blame and shame.

Addendum:  I just learned a couple of hours ago of the elbow injury that Matt Harvey has suffered.  The brittleness of pitchers is something that we are constantly reminded of and, despite our hopes going forward, obviously no pitcher is guaranteed a long and healthy career.  Not Matt Harvey, not Clayton Kershaw, not any of them.  All we can do is enjoy their talent while we have them.  

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22 thoughts on “The Greatness of Clayton Kershaw

  1. I absolutely adore watching Clayton Kershaw pitch. As a Yoga instructor, I’m always watching for positioning, form, placement of feet, and how an individual uses his space. He stays so beautifully in his plane — every single time. And, from an anatomical perspective, his little pause/hitch (whatever you want to call it) in his delivery is magnificent — it must be much of what gives hitters fits. (Many pitchers with hitches/pauses in their deliveries are expending energy in the pause, but Kershaw never does, even though his are longer than most.) Koufax was so smooth, and Kershaw is smooth too, but in such a different way. Nice post, thank you!

    • Thank you for that very original perspective on Kershaw’s pitching. It’s certainly not the usual kind of comment we get around here. Interesting comparison to Koufax as well.
      Thanks for reading!
      Bill

      • 🙂

        Once I started teaching Yoga, I was able to see baseball in an entirely different light. (For my students who aren’t baseball fans, this drives them crazy. I often quote from books like “The Mental Game of Baseball” because the same principles apply to Yoga practice.) Anyway, if you watch Kershaw’s pause carefully, it’s coming from his core, so very little energy expended. If you watch other pitchers with pauses in delivery, it’s usually coming from his shoulder or arm (sometimes the hip) — which takes energy and means the limbs are stopping, but the rest of the body isn’t quite.

        Anyway, bottom line … Kershaw is beautiful to watch.

  2. Interesting how young he was brought to the majors, and how well he has already done. And so far, knock wood, he continues to take the ball. Same with King Felix.

    It sure seems like the smart way to handle a great young pitcher, as you never know how many bullets are in the arm. Why waste them wih minor league innings? Pitches thrown are pitches thrown.

    Get as much bang for the buck as you can.

    I wish the Mets would start paying attention.

    • Hi Michael,
      I agree with you. If a pitcher is ready, he’s ready. Age shouldn’t be a primary focus.
      Hey, what do you think of the Pirates landing Morneau? He’s supposed to be a free agent at year’s end. Think the Mets might kick the tires on him for, say, 4 mill for one year, plus a team option for a second year for an additional 4 mill? Just wondering.
      Thanks for reading,
      Bill

  3. nice tribute Bill and with harvey down as addendum, it makes kershaw’s endurance that much more rare-4 straight 200 plus innings, but not just innings.

  4. Matt Harvey’s elbow injury is pretty awful. All I know about it is what I’ve read in the papers the last couple days, but the consensus has been pretty rough on the Mets organization for overworking that young arm. As a person who knows a lot more about it than I do, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

    I can’t say enough about Kershaw–he’s my favorite player currently. I’ve never seen him live, but if there aren’t any adjustments to the rotation, I’m hoping to see him pitch against the Giants on 09.13 (Friday the 13th!). Late season games against the Giants usually have a charged atmosphere, regardless of whether either or both are in contention.

    Who are the other two or three other players you mention from Mets history who have been so dominant so young? Dwight Gooden is surely one of them.

    • Hey Man,
      Hope all is well in Smak-Land these days.
      The nonsense that the Mets overworked him is just mostly bullshit. No one knows what the magic number is to burn out a pitcher’s arm. Limit him to 85 pitches per outing? Shit happens. Should we make them throw nothing but nice, easy, 88 mile per hour fastballs, and no curveballs or sliders? I don’t blame the Mets for this. They’ve made plenty of mistakes, but I don’t put this one on them.
      Yeah, Kershaw is a monster, and I hope for baseball’s sake that he stays healthy. I hate to see any young pitcher go down with a serious injury.
      Along with Gooden, Seaver was, of course outstanding at a young age. In fact, his 2.21 ERA at age 24 was virtually the same as Harvey’s this season.
      Nice to hear from you,
      Bill

  5. Mike Cornelius on said:

    Great post Bill. I forwarded it on to a dear friend who is a lifelong Dodgers fan; sure he’ll enjoy it as well. On a down note, so sorry to hear the Harvey news. Great young arms are such fragile things.

    Mike

    • Thanks very much, Mike. I hope your friend enjoys it. Yeah, the news about Harvey is pretty much a Mets fans worst nightmare. Hopefully, Kershaw will continue to enjoy good health going forward.
      Take care,
      Bill

  6. If Kershaw keeps going and the Dodgers get to, maybe win the World Series this year, he would be there with Hershiser in ’88 and Koufax in terms of storied Dodger pitching seasons.

    • And let’s not forget Fernando-mania, and Hideo (The Tornado) Nomo as well. Dodgers sure can come up with some good ones, going all the way back to Dazzy Vance.
      Take care,
      Bill

      • Kershaw is delivering a heroic Dodgers pitching performance this year. It’s easy to see that he could be leading the team to a pennant. I guess missing a month at the start of 2014 has helped him stay fresh, which would be very helpful in October.

      • You’re right, Arne. Clearly, he has delivered one of the most awesome pitching seasons we’ve seen in a long time. He’d get my vote for both Cy Young (obviously) and MVP as well.
        Nice to hear from you,
        Bill

  7. When the Pirates drafted Kris Benson, he was touted as the new Koufax–apparently he didn’t ask the original if having a psycho ex-stripper wife was career enhancing. As for Kershaw, not only is his stuff absolutely filthy, he can hit a little too. The man is just plain unfair.

  8. As a Giants fan I always cringe whenever anybody writes anything about the Dodgers. But Kershaw is about as good as they come.

  9. As a Dodgers fan I always cringe when some new lefty shows up. The first thing out of everyone’s mouth is “The next Sandy Koufax”. And of course the poor guy never is. Kershaw, however, may be the real thing. Nice post, Bill.
    v

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